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Mexico's growing legion of narco orphans

At 23, Bryan’s mother recently became a drug war widow for the second time when her narcotics smuggler husband was shot in the head by a teenage hitman who strolled up to their home as he was parking outside, with Bryan, his mother and baby sister in the car.

Bryan gabbles uncontrollably, Casas says, about how it was to see his stepfather’s brains spill out of his head that day. It was just one more killing in a brutal war between rival drug trafficking cartels and Mexican security forces that has killed nearly 30,000 people in under four years.

As far as Casas knows, nobody is tracking Bryan’s attendance at school or providing therapy. The omens for his future aren’t good.

“She is aware of the risks to her children but she’s always lived in this world. She has no examples of other ways to live,” Casas said as she recounted the story of Marisol, one of thousands of drug widows in Ciudad Juarez, which has jumped ahead of places like Baghdad and Caracas to become the world’s murder capital.

Marisol was a pretty 17-year-old when Bryan’s father, a big-league local drug lord, seduced her and took her off as a permanent mistress. He kept her shut up in one of his houses and took to beating her before he was shot dead by a hired gun from a rival gang. She married a lower-level trafficker and they had a baby girl. But since he was murdered she sits at home, depressed and bloated from drinking all day. To stop her infant daughter from screaming, she bottle-feeds her with beer.

Squashed into a two-room cinderblock house in a vast and soulless slum on the edge of Ciudad Juarez with her sister, also widowed, and her teenage kids, Marisol plans to prostitute herself to other drug smugglers in what could be the final straw for the future of her two young children.

Decapitated bodies. Murder victims hanging from bridges. Blood crusted on street curbs where an assassin has struck. These are the gruesome images the world has come to associate with Mexico’s drug war. But, out of view, the plight of so-called narco orphans like Bryan is just as haunting. It may also foretell more mayhem in the years to come.

With shoddy education standards and poor career prospects already holding back Mexico’s youth, people like Casas worry about the impact on society of tens of thousands of kids growing up emotionally traumatized and with their prospects for building a better life for themselves in tatters.

“There is an enormous cost because these kids aren’t children as they should be. They are future criminals. What other aspirations are they going to have? What kind of future awaits them?” Casas said over an uncomfortably early supper in a brightly lit mall in Ciudad Juarez, where these days people avoid side streets and don’t stay out after dark.

Neither Mexico’s government nor the various independent groups studying organized crime keep track of the number of narco orphans who have lost fathers, and sometimes mothers too, to the drug war.

Veteran human rights lawyer Gustavo de la Rosa, an investigator for the Chihuahua state human rights commission that covers Ciudad Juarez, analyzed a pool of 5,000 drug war dead in the city, only separated from El Paso, Texas, by a wire fence and the dry river bed of the Rio Grande. Based on data showing Mexican men aged 18-35 have an average 1.7 kids, de la Rosa estimated they left 8,500 orphans behind.

Extend the math over a national level and Mexico, which considers a child to be orphaned even if its mother survives, could be looking at a total of 50,000 drug war orphans to date.

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